‘Dentistry will suffer’ as NHS Direct is axed

A leading dental commentator has slammed the shutdown of the NHS DIrect helpline.

Chief executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter, has expressed growing concerns over the government’s plans announced last week.

The axing of the 24-hour nurse-led service is set to leave the future of 1,400 nurses uncertain, as well as those 15,000 callers a day who rely on the professional advice.

However, its replacement, the new NHS 111 service is not an adequate alternative, claims Dr Carter.

Dr Carter says: ‘NHS Direct was a quality service and an essential source of information for the public. Sadly, they have replaced it with a facility which will simply struggle to offer the same standard of assistance.’

The new 111 service will employ fewer qualified nurses and will instead turn to non-specialist ‘call advisors’ who have completed a 60-hour training programme.

Dr Carter says: ‘Unfortunately, when looking to slash costs, the temptation is to look to cut staff, their wages or to introduce cheaper employees altogether. This seems to be the case with the 111 service.

‘Time will tell on how it will be received in the long-run by the public and whether the same standard of advice can be replicated by non-professionals.   

‘Regrettably, it will be dental health that will suffer the most. The now abandoned NHS Direct service regularly took more calls related to dentistry than any other area and if you consider on top of that the potential cuts to local PCTs, it leaves us asking just who is going to fill the void in terms of giving qualified information to the public?’            

The answer could rest with the National Dental Helpline (0845 063 1188), which is staffed by fully-qualified dental nurses, who offer free advice at a local-rate number. It has dealt with more than 250,000 calls since its formation and offers advice on a full range dental issues, from difficulties in trying to find local NHS dentist, to solutions to combat dental pain and phobias.    

Meanwhile, the new 111 60-hour training course is the same as that is taken by 999 call operators and will include specific education around anatomy, physiology and clinical features of injury and illness.

NHS Direct, which was formed in 1998, was staffed by nurses and health advisers at 33 sites around the UK and received around five million calls a year to its core services, as well as an additional five million people who used its online health and symptoms checker.

However, last year it cost the NHS more than £120 million to run, speeding up its eventual termination. 

A trial of the new 111 phone-line is currently being tested in the North East region, with further trials to be carried out across the UK over the coming three years.

The online version of the service is set to remain, in addition to the phone service in both Scotland and Wales.